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When Halfway Houses Pose Full-Time Problems

When Halfway Houses Pose Full-Time Problems

by Derek Gilna

A recent interest among government officials in reducing prison populations as a way to cut costs, stemming from the 2008 Great Recession that resulted in significant budget deficits, has placed renewed emphasis on the importance of halfway houses. As more prisoners are released there is a corresponding need for more post-release housing – including reentry facilities.

Loosely defined as a “halfway” point for prisoners between incarceration and freedom, halfway houses have experienced a number of problems that indicate the industry is in need of systemic improvements. If states continue the trend of reducing their prison populations and more federal prisoners are released due to sentencing reforms [see, e.g., PLN, Aug. 2014, p.26], then halfway houses – also known as Community Corrections Centers (CCCs) and Residential Reentry Centers (RRCs) – will have to increase their capacity as well as the quantity and quality of the transitional services they provide.

An Industry Plagued with Problems

Although some halfway houses are adequately managed and staffed with competent professionals, others are operated more for profit than an interest in helping offenders successfully return to society. Too many incidents involving poorly-supervised halfway house residents and indifferent, or even criminal, behavior by employees have occurred in almost every state as well as the federal prison system.

A well-managed halfway house provides a safe environment for soon-to-be released prisoners; some may have been in jail for relatively short periods of time while others might have been locked up for years or even decades. A halfway house’s principal goal of providing a smooth transition back to society provides the first line of defense against recidivism. Halfway house residents often have few current ties to the community to which they are released, and even if they do, may not have family or friends to assist them. They need viable reentry services, including job placement and housing assistance, and often require substance abuse programs. Too often, though, halfway houses are viewed by their owners and operators as little more than a revenue source.

However poor a halfway house might be in providing effectual services and programs, many times it is the only available option. For some state prisoners nearing release, placement in halfway houses is mandatory; other states require no time spent at a reentry facility. According to the non-partisan Pew Charitable Trusts, prisoners in eight states are allowed to “max out” their sentences with no reentry programs to smooth their return to the community. In those states, about 40% of prisoners are released with no transitional services.

“Now, policymakers on both sides of the aisle are starting to realize that if you’re serious about public safety, you need more effective strategies,” observed Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project.

According to an April 2014 recidivism report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 49.7% of offenders return to prison within three years after release and 55.1% return within five years. Clearly, most state and federal correctional facilities do a poor job of “correcting” prisoners and preparing them for release, which puts an even greater burden on halfway houses to supply reentry services.

If the promise of the recent flurry of prison population reductions and sentencing reforms across the nation is to be realized, halfway houses must adapt to new challenges and increased responsibilities. Such reforms will be rendered meaningless if a large percentage of newly-released prisoners re-offend and are re-incarcerated.

Despite this potential crisis, there is little sign that either state corrections officials or the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is addressing shortcomings in the current halfway house system. Many reentry facilities are poorly-managed and monitored, with violence, drug use and escapes that are aggravated by widespread indifference and misconduct by staff members.

Further, halfway house programs sometimes reflect a corrupt system that awards contracts on the basis of political favoritism or cronyism rather than the ability to reduce recidivism; halfway house contracts are sometimes seen as way for government officials to reward political backers and campaign contributors.

In any other business or industry, the level of failure and corruption present at some halfway houses would result in wholesale employee terminations and changes in management, but as in many correctional facilities, there is little accountability.

Some companies and organizations that operate halfway houses try to do their best to provide the services that soon-to-be-released prisoners need. Dismas Charities, for example, which runs reentry facilities nationwide, has a good reputation in the industry. While even Dismas has had its share of problems, it seems to genuinely care about the quality of its transitional services.

According to Dismas, “Our history has taught us that, to be effective in the process of reintegration, we need to focus on three critical areas that have proven to deliver the best results: Education, Employment, and Support. Each program employs evidence-based practices, and the use of validated risk/needs assessments to reduce recidivism.” Additionally, “A critical component of all our work is a focus on helping our residents obtain meaningful employment. Through employment, our residents repay their debts to society and become responsible, independent citizens, taxpayers, parents, and contributors to the community.”

Unfortunately, not all halfway houses are focused on reentry services and programs. States that have faced significant problems with halfway houses include New Jersey, Florida and Pennsylvania. The federal prison system’s use of contract halfway houses has also not been exempt from criticism.

CEC in New Jersey

New Jersey has embarked on a grand experiment, shifting thousands of prisoners from expensive-to-run state prisons into less costly, privately-operated halfway houses. The state’s prison system has under 25,000 beds while approximately 3,500 offenders and parolees are housed in around two dozen halfway houses. But the system is not without its problems; about 5,100 residents have absconded from halfway houses since 2005, and former employees and residents report that drug and alcohol use, crime and violence are rampant at some facilities.

The state’s largest player in the private halfway house industry is Community Education Centers (CEC), a New Jersey-based for-profit company that manages jails, prisons and transitional centers throughout the United States. The firm operates six large halfway house facilities in New Jersey that contain 1,900 of the state’s reentry beds. CEC also runs the 900-bed Albert M. “Bo” Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center (Robinson Center), which functions as both a halfway house and intake center for state prisoners transitioning into the halfway house system. Prisoners deemed low risk by CEC are transferred from the Robinson Center to other halfway houses, including those operated by other companies.

CEC is deeply enmeshed in New Jersey politics. The state’s Governor, Chris Christie, was registered as a lobbyist for the company in 2000 and 2001. He later maintained close ties with CEC, visiting and praising the company’s facilities while serving as a U.S. Attorney – a position that has little to do with state corrections.

Further, William J. Palatucci, a senior vice president at CEC, was Christie’s close friend, political advisor and former law partner. Palatucci served as co-chair of Christie’s 2010 inaugural committee. After Christie became governor in 2010, he hired the son-in-law of John J. Clancy, CEC’s founder and CEO, to work as an assistant in the governor’s office.

Such is CEC’s political clout that, in the 1990s, state regulators allowed the company to set up a nonprofit organization called Education and Health Centers of America (EHCA) to skirt the state’s requirement that only nonprofit agencies receive contracts to operate halfway houses. EHCA, which has a mere ten employees, contracts with New Jersey to provide halfway houses, which are then managed by CEC. Clancy receives a $351,346 annual salary from EHCA, which is required to disclose its financial reports, in addition to the salary he receives from CEC.

The primary purpose of EHCA appears to be to funnel the millions of dollars it gets from state and county agencies to CEC as its sole “subcontractor” to operate halfway houses. Therefore, the vast majority of the $71 million CEC received from the state and various New Jersey counties in fiscal year 2011 came through EHCA. In 2011, New Jersey’s Comptroller criticized the state’s contracts with halfway houses and singled out EHCA, citing its close connections to CEC. [See: PLN, July 2012, p.24].

The total state and county budget for private halfway houses in New Jersey was $105 million in FY 2011. With so much money at stake, there are concerns whether reentry facilities are providing competent and cost effective services. One persistent problem has been a high number of escapes by halfway house residents.

An Epidemic of Escapes

“The system is a mess,” declared Thaddeus B. Caldwell, a senior state corrections investigator who spent years tracking escapees from halfway houses. “No matter how many escaped, no matter how many were caught, no matter how many committed heinous acts while they were on the run, they still kept releasing more guys to halfway houses, and it kept happening over and over again.”

The number of escapes from halfway houses astonished even people involved in the corrections system – 46 escapes in September 2011, 39 in October, 40 in November and 38 in December. After he instituted reforms, Governor Christie bragged that “only” 181 residents absconded from halfway houses in the first five months of 2012.

About 10,000 New Jersey state prisoners and parolees pass through halfway houses each year. CEC officials have used that number to claim the escape rate from their facilities is “staggeringly low.” However, that argument holds little water when one compares the escape rate to that of the state prison system or considers there are only about 3,500 offenders in reentry facilities at any given time.

Halfway house officials complain that residents who return late from work release assignments or who surrender after a few days of being absent are harmless, yet are often considered escapees. They also point out that their employees are unarmed and without authority to stop an escape, and that they depend on educating halfway house residents as the best option to prevent them from absconding.

Those points may have some validity, but ignore the fact that many of the escapes have occurred at “locked-down” halfway houses – those with no work-release program – and few escapees are prosecuted once caught. For example, the prosecution rate for residents who abscond in Essex County has been around 10% since 2009.

Sometimes the low prosecution rate reflects a lack of interest by local prosecutors in pursuing a relatively minor infraction that can be handled through the prison system’s disciplinary process. Yet law enforcement officials often don’t even know a halfway house resident has escaped until they commit another crime – and sometimes not even then.

Rafael Miranda absconded from a halfway house in December 2009 and was on the run for four months until he fatally shot a man in Newark. In 2010, David Goodell, imprisoned for assaulting his ex-girlfriend, escaped from Logan Hall, a halfway house with one of the highest escape rates, and murdered a woman who had broken off her relationship with him. Valeria Parziale escaped from a Trenton halfway house in 2009; nine days later she used a knife to cut off a man’s ear in a liquor store. She was charged with assault but not escape, because prosecutors were unaware she was an escapee.

More recently, Jahmel Glanton, 19, walked away from the Robinson Center in December 2013, just three days after he arrived at the facility; he was captured more than three weeks later on January 11, 2014 and charged with possession of crack cocaine and obstructing the administration of law.

Halfway houses run by the nonprofit Kintock Group have accounted for almost half the escapes in New Jersey in recent years. CEC has used that fact to deflect criticism that there is something wrong with the company’s management of its halfway houses, but the Kintock Group pointed out that all of the prisoners sent to its facilities first go through the CEC-run Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center for evaluation. Only those deemed low-risk by CEC are transferred to Kintock halfway houses.

From 2009 through 2011, 16% of escapees absconded from CEC-operated facilities but another 43% had first been evaluated as low-risk by CEC before fleeing from other halfway houses. Therefore, it appears that improper evaluation by CEC was a contributing factor in at least some of the escapes.

Another explanation is the growth in the percentage of prisoners convicted of violent crimes being sent to halfway houses. That figure increased from 12% in 2006 to 21% in 2012, and coincided with a budget-savings-driven expansion in the use of halfway houses. It costs between $125 and $150 a day to house a prisoner in a state prison, but only $60 to $75 to put the same prisoner in a reentry facility.

Some former halfway house residents and workers have provided a different explanation for the high number of escapes, saying reentry facilities are often violent, dangerous and gang-infested, rampant with drugs and other contraband, and residents are not closely monitored.

“This industry just infuriates me,” stated Nancy Wolff, director of the Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research at Rutgers University. “If you want to go there and sit in peer-run groups – or hang out and smoke and play cards and have access to drugs – it’s a great place.”

According to Vanessa Falcone, 32, there is a much darker side to halfway houses. Falcone was assigned to a cleaning crew at the Robinson Center in 2009 when an employee ordered her into a closet and forced her to perform oral sex.

“He took his pants off and grabbed my hair and pushed me down,” she said. “That started a few weeks of basically hell.” After another staff member learned what was happening, Falcone was moved to a different facility and the employee was fired but not prosecuted.

In a similar incident, a woman who escaped from the Robinson Center told police after being caught that she was trying to get away from a counselor, Joseph A. Chase, who had repeatedly raped her. When police searched Chase’s car they found drugs; they then arrested him on charges of sexual assault and drug possession. CEC officials said it was an isolated incident.

Mass Escape from Logan Hall

Hurricane Sandy and a lack of preparation or training for unusual weather allowed residents at one New Jersey halfway house to run rampant, resulting in the escape of fifteen prisoners.

Although designated a halfway house, Logan Hall, operated by CEC, is designed and run more like a jail. Residents are locked into small rooms, the facility is surrounded by fences topped with razor wire, and the doors and gates are electronically-controlled. When the power failed as a result of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012, all of the doors unlocked.

The opened doors allowed dozens of male residents at Logan Hall to get into the hallways. Once there they destroyed furniture and vending machines, tore signs with messages such as “Stop Lying” and “Admit When You Are Wrong” off the walls, and threatened employees and female residents.

The CEC workers were unable to organize an effective response to the mayhem. Poorly paid, trained and equipped, none of them knew how to start the backup generator; they didn’t even have a flashlight.

One supervisor confronted a group of male residents wearing improvised face masks who were headed toward the rear of the building where the women were housed. While the supervisor kept the men at bay, other staff members moved the female residents to a reception area that could be manually locked. They stayed there until the police arrived.

Thwarted in their efforts, the masked men grabbed chairs and blankets to scale the perimeter fence and left Logan Hall through the unlocked front door. They quickly discovered that the front gate was open, too.

Of the 15 residents who escaped, six were recaptured within three days, another six were caught between three and six days later, two eluded authorities for about a week and only one remained free after two weeks.

Governor Christie was strangely silent about the events at Logan Hall during Hurricane Sandy. Assemblyman Charles Mainor, chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee, was troubled by the administration’s failure to disclose the incident.

“I did not know. Of course, they would not want me to know,” said Mainor, referring to Christie’s strong support for CEC and his close friend, CEC vice president William J. Palatucci, who left the company in November 2012 after extensive news coverage about problems at CEC-run halfway houses.

Fifty officers from four law enforcement agencies, including the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, Essex County Correctional Department, Newark Police Department and New Jersey Parole Board, responded to the incident at Logan Hall. Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker said it was “obviously a serious event.” Joe Amato, president of the Essex County guards union and an opponent of privately-operated halfway houses, took it a step further.

“The place was turned upside down,” he said. “The inmates basically rioted.”

Amato’s take may be an exaggeration since no one was injured at Logan Hall. But it is probably not an exaggeration to agree with one of the responding law enforcement officers who, on the condition of anonymity, said there were moments when the situation at the facility could have spiraled out of control.

None of the state or county-run jails and prisons in New Jersey experienced disturbances or escapes during Hurricane Sandy.

Violence, Drugs and Gangs

Both prisoners and former employees have described the Robinson Center as dangerous – especially at night. Residents are housed in barracks-style rooms with only one or two staff members to oversee each 170-bed unit. Some employees are so afraid they refuse to patrol the halls. Thus, at night, the rules of the jungle prevail – with robberies, sexual assaults and the weak being preyed upon by the strong. Employees have said many prisoners ask to be returned to the state prison system because they feel safer there.

“They definitely told me, ‘I want to go back to prison,’” said former Robinson Center GED teacher Assenka Okiloff. “They would tell me that all the time.”

“It’s not a safe environment, not safe for inmates or for staff,” agreed Robert Brumbaugh, former deputy director of security at the Robinson Center and a 25-year veteran of the corrections system. “It was horrendous.”

The purpose of the Robinson Center and other halfway houses is to provide resources and programs to help prisoners succeed following their release. How could it be, then, that when Mercer County conducted a surprise drug test of 75 county prisoners held at the Robinson Center in August 2009, 55 (73%) tested positive?

The facility is “like the projects,” stated Matthew Leibe, who was housed at the Robinson Center in 2011. “I’m walking down the hallway from mess and I’m getting approached by everybody selling everything – ‘I’ve got batteries, T-shirts, weed, heroin, coke.’”

One explanation given by former employees for the prevalence of drugs at the halfway house was rampant falsification of prisoner records. The records reported drug treatment and other classes as well as drug tests, all of which never occurred. And when classes were provided, they were given in a haphazard manner or by untrained employees who merely read the program materials to a group of residents.

Denette Pasqualini, 40, was hired as a counselor at the Robinson Center in June 2011. She had what she thought was relevant experience working security at Six Flags, but soon found things were very wrong at the facility. Supervisors drank whiskey hidden in soda bottles, counselors were having sex with residents and when she tried to intervene after one resident stabbed another with a pen, other prisoners held her back. She also observed counselors warning residents of upcoming drug tests, allowing them to take urine cups into the bathroom without supervision and simply doctoring test results so they showed prisoners passing drug tests who had not been tested.

“The staff is from the Trenton area and know the inmates from the streets,” said Pasqualini. “They say: ‘I’m not going to give her a drug test. I know her. I’ll let it go.’”

Cynthia Taylor, 55, another former Robinson Center counselor, falsified records and saw others falsify them after she was hired despite having no previous counseling experience. She was told to give lectures on drug treatment and parenting.

“We all understood it was a numbers game,” she said. “[CEC] made money not on how many people were rehabilitated. ‘How many bodies can we get in here and keep here for a certain amount of time?’ That’s what they were interested in.”

When these kinds of problems are brought to the state’s attention they are often ignored, according to Bronislaw Szulc, formerly a senior state official in charge of investigating halfway houses. Szulc said he submitted extensive documentation concerning drugs, violence, escapes and poor security at the Robinson Center and other halfway houses before retiring in 2010. But state officials rarely held the operators of the facilities accountable, instead demanding that he soften the criticism in his reports.

“I was told to stand down and ease up – not to go after things so hard,” he said.

The influence of gangs explains some of the prevalence of violence and drugs at halfway houses. “Beyond outright threats and shakedowns, even time on a facility’s pay phone was found to be controlled and sold by gang members,” said Lee C. Seglem, assistant director of the State Commission of Investigation, which reviewed the influence of gangs in New Jersey’s corrections system in 2009. The commission found that gangs were a much greater problem in halfway houses than prisons.

Some reentry facilities have a form of work release, which might account for the presence of drugs and other contraband. The Robinson Center is not one of them; rather, it’s a locked-down facility. Despite its locked-down status there have been at least nine escapes since 2009, and drug use is rampant.

CEC’s hiring standards may also contribute to contraband problems in its halfway houses. Dana Vetrano, who was hired as a counselor at the Robinson Center, had done time for robbery – and wasn’t the only ex-con employed by the company.

“They were from the streets,” she said of other staff members with criminal records. “They needed a job, they came in from the street, they were hired – that was it. They had no qualifications, nothing.”

So what is Governor Christie’s administration doing to reign in the anarchy and escapes at the state’s halfway houses? According to David W. Thomas, executive director of New Jersey’s parole board, his agency conducted an inquiry. But Thomas refused to provide any details of the inquiry and, when asked for a copy of the findings, said “There is no actual document.”

In July 2012, the New Jersey legislature held two days of hearings into gang activity, violence and drug use at halfway houses. The hearings were prompted by a New York Times exposé that revealed problems at reentry facilities, based on a ten-month investigation by the paper. Afterwards, lawmakers vowed to introduce bills to increase oversight of halfway houses and improve contracting procedures.

In August 2012, $45,000 in fines was levied for nine escapes from six halfway houses, two of which were operated by CEC. That was the largest sanction imposed on privately-run halfway houses; the only other fines amounted to $30,000 in April 2012 for six escapes (including four at CEC facilities).

At the same time the state was imposing fines for repeated escapes, the Christie administration was working to reduce halfway house oversight. In June 2012, Governor Christie issued a line-item veto to curtail new disclosure requirements and, two months later, significantly weakened a requirement for audits of halfway house contracts.

In July 2012, Christie signed a bill to expand the state’s drug court program by making it mandatory for non-violent offenders, which was expected to vastly increase the number of people entering drug treatment. As such programs are provided at halfway houses, the legislation will likely increase the state’s halfway house population, benefiting CEC and other reentry facility contractors.

“You’ll see an expansion of halfway houses, an expansion of opportunities in the state when they know there’ll be more people who are available to enter these programs,” Governor Christie said. “So I think you’ll see an expansion of them beyond where they are now.”

Litigation Over Halfway Houses

Lawsuits have further highlighted problems with halfway houses in New Jersey. The union that represents Essex County guards filed suit in state Superior Court in August 2012, alleging that the largest halfway house in the state, the l,200-bed CEC-run Delaney Hall in Newark, has been operating for more than a decade without legal authority.

The suit, filed by the Policemen’s Benevolent Association, claims that EHCA is “a sham nonprofit corporation engaged solely in activities designed to generate income” for CEC. In addition to the funding it receives for housing state prisoners and parolees, CEC also received a $130 million contract in December 2011 to house Essex County prisoners at Delaney Hall. The county, in turn, rents its jail beds to federal authorities to house federal prisoners and immigration detainees, at a substantial profit.

“We need to get a judge’s opinion on whether or not it’s illegal,” said union local president Joe Amato, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. “When you incorporate profits into corrections, that’s when corners are cut, because everyone is worried about the bottom line instead of safety.”

Further, former CEC chief financial officer David N.T. Watson filed suit against the company in 2011. Watson claimed that CEC’s founder and CEO, John J. Clancy, lied about the company’s financial condition when recruiting him; he also alleged he was improperly fired. Documents in the lawsuit revealed that CEC was in crisis as early as 2009. The records showed the firm had defaulted on its debts in January 2010 and contemplated bankruptcy that same year.

CEC’s fiscal problems began when it expanded in states like Alabama and Texas; the company borrowed heavily for the expansion but was reportedly unable to make its payments. To avoid a debt crisis and have enough money to pay its employees, CEC laid off staff. More than 15 former workers told The New York Times that the lower staffing levels resulted in reduced reentry services for halfway house residents.

In December 2010, CEC obtained $235 million in financing with an interest rate of 15.25%, which served as a temporary band-aid for the company’s debt crisis. The following year the firm received $71 million from state and local governments and had expenditures that exceeded $105 million. To forestall bankruptcy, CEC gave “investors without substantial experience in corrections a role in running the company,” according to the Times.

LLR Partners, a Philadelphia-based private equity firm, and other investors contributed $53 million to CEC, largely due to then-vice president William Palatucci’s close relationship with Governor Christie. The company has evidently weathered the financial storm, as it remains in business and hasn’t filed for bankruptcy protection.

Watson’s lawsuit against CEC was resolved in October 2012 under undisclosed terms. See: Watson v. CEC, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 2:11-cv-04855-WJM-MF.

Halfway Houses in the Sunshine State

According to a 2012 report by Florida’s Tampa Bay Times, it appears that halfway houses in that state also have significant problems, including failure to properly screen those who operate reentry facilities. One such operator, Troy Anthony Charles, had an extensive criminal record before he went into the halfway house business. He claimed to offer addicts and alcoholics a safe, sober place to stay while helping them find jobs and get counseling.

However, a former resident, John Lees, said the program was “a scam” and Charles was “using the money he gets from funding to purchase drugs,” according to a February 2012 St. Petersburg police report. Shortly thereafter, Charles fatally shot one of his halfway house residents and returned to jail to face murder charges. The incident revealed that almost anyone can open a reentry facility in Florida as there is minimal regulation; the sheer volume of people being released from prisons and jails every day creates a huge market opportunity for unscrupulous halfway house operators.

Transitional housing offers the promise of a bed, meals, job placement assistance and an opportunity for substance abuse treatment. According to the Tampa Bay Times, many halfway houses “are large, professionally managed facilities that generally deliver what they promise. But many others are little more than flophouses that cram residents two or three to a room in dingy quarters with no job assistance, no trained staff and no support.”

Many of the latter halfway houses are operated by individuals “with serious criminal records, including robbery, sexual assault and drug trafficking. One operator was permanently barred from a federal housing program because of improper billing, yet started a new halfway house that is getting thousands of dollars from the same program,” the Times reported. Drug abuse is widespread, with residents being taken to the hospital or even dying from overdoses.

Incredibly, state officials do not require reentry facilities to be licensed, thus it is impossible to track such incidents. In fact, without licensing, there is no way to know how many halfway houses are actually operating in Florida.

“We’ve been told there are several thousands of those around the state at any one time,” said Darran Duchene, who oversaw federally-funded halfway houses when he worked for the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). “They should be regulated from a business standpoint and then from a social service standpoint.”

Many halfway houses are ordinary-looking homes on quiet suburban streets. According to the Times, “There are halfway house programs in apartment complexes, old motels and buildings once used as assisted living facilities for the elderly. Few have signs out front.”

“[Halfway houses] keep popping up,” said Ramona Schaefer, a Pinellas County sheriff’s supervisor who helps find housing for released prisoners. “My concern is, what are their intentions? There are a lot of people who truly want to help. Then there are others whose intentions are not so pure.”

The amount of funding available for transitional housing has fueled problems with halfway houses in Florida, as has the increase in addictions caused by prescription drug abuse. Real estate investors stung in the housing market bust have realized they can reap larger profits by operating such facilities, noting that with two people per room, a three-bedroom house can produce a cash flow of up to $3,000 per month – all paid for by the government.

Starting in 2003, a well-intentioned federal program known as Access to Recovery (ATR) put $150 million into treatment for recovering addicts, which helped drive the trend. As noted by the Times, “$30 million in federal funds has gone to Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and several other Florida counties, much of it for transitional housing. Almost 300 halfway houses initially qualified for the money.”

William Garrison, a former crack user, opened New Birth Abundant Life Ministry and received more than $300,000 in ATR funds before being barred from the program. According to residents, Garrison made them pay $50 a week for food even though he received federal funding for meals. They also said Garrison cursed and touched them non-consensually with “strong sexual overtones,” a state report found.

The House of Hope in St. Petersburg, another program that qualified for ATR funds, was operated by Patrick Jay Banks, who served eight years in Texas for robbery and forgery. According to investigators, Banks was involved in the “most egregious case of fraud, waste and abuse” among Florida halfway houses, submitting bills for residents even before they arrived at the homes he managed. He collected over $110,000 before being kicked out of the federal ATR program.

However, Banks told the Times that he had opened a new reentry facility, Agape House, which had received $55,000 in federal funds. Banks’ name did not appear on Agape’s ATR application.

DCF, which oversees the federal ATR program, said it was unaware of Banks’ involvement in Agape House and would investigate. To qualify for federal funding, halfway house owners and staff have to undergo criminal background checks and the houses must meet certain codes. The majority of reentry facilities in Florida receive no federal funds, though, and are thus poorly regulated.

Emily Rifkin was one of at least three people who overdosed and died in Tampa Bay halfway houses. In November 2010, Rifkin, 25, was still struggling with an addiction that had sent her to prison for eight months. A judge allowed her to go to a halfway house while she waited for an opening in a residential treatment program.

Rifkin violated rules at the first facility and was moved to a house on Okaloosa Street, where she was supposed to have more supervision. But according to the Times, a police report indicated “that obvious signs of trouble were ignored the day she died.” One roommate thought Rifkin seemed “kind of out of it,” but did nothing to help. Six hours later the house manager – herself a drug addict – saw Rifkin sitting on the bathroom floor yet failed to intervene. It wasn’t until after Rifkin had stopped breathing that a roommate called 911, but by then it was too late. Rifkin died due to an accidental overdose of oxycodone.

Shelton Jones, the house’s owner, had converted it into a reentry facility with assistance from Linda Walker, who runs the nonprofit Hillsborough House of Hope, a transitional program for women. Walker also runs a for-profit business to help people establish halfway houses. Walker and Jones said they weren’t responsible for Rifkin’s death. “I feel bad she died,” Walker stated, “but a lot of people die in recovery.”

There were no trained staff at the Okaloosa Street house and no routine testing for drugs and alcohol. A year before Rifkin’s death, two male residents died after overdosing on methadone in another unregulated halfway house.

Following a suicide attempt and a brief stay at a private mental health facility, Leisha Simpson needed a safe residence. She decided to go to Still Standing in St. Petersburg, as the program’s website said it provided a “safe haven” with counseling and 12-step meetings.

Instead, Simpson paid $500 a month for a bed in a roach-infested house with up to four other women, one of whom used drugs and had sex with men in the shared bedroom. She filed police reports after her TV, credit cards and medications were stolen. Another resident assaulted her.

Rev. Edward Leftwich, who founded Still Standing, said he couldn’t maintain a sober living program as he got older and federal funds ran out. He admitted he should not have left his website up with inaccurate information.

One halfway house operator, Pamela Dixon, visited detox facilities and public agencies in Pinellas to promote her program, A New Direction for Women and Men. Public defender Bob Dillinger began sending clients with alcohol problems to Dixon’s facility, unaware that it required residents to have their prescriptions filled at a pharmacy that also sells wine and beer. The pharmacy and the New Direction house were owned by the same Tampa-based group.

“I do find it questionable,” Dillinger stated when informed about the connection. He said Dixon agreed to not deal with the pharmacy.

Florida officials have found it’s difficult to oversee the thousands of halfway houses in the state given the current law and lax regulations. “We regulate thousands of child care facilities across the state with no problem,” noted DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie. “We are certainly up to the task if the law were changed.”

However, there has been little political will to monitor halfway houses and ensure they deliver the programs and services they promise. A bill introduced by Florida state Senator Jeff Clemens to regulate sober houses and halfway houses, SB 582, died in committee in April 2014; a similar bill introduced the previous year had also failed to pass.

Thus, it is easy for people like Troy Anthony Charles, a convicted felon, to get into the halfway house business. Charles served three years for aggravated assault in Arizona before moving to Florida and starting Back to Life Outreach Recovery Services. He rented a house, put bunk beds in the living room and charged $125 a week.

One resident, John Lees, had served time in jail for drug-related offenses. “At first it was presented to me, like, if you need a place to stay and recover from addiction, you can stay there,” he stated. “Then he tried to get me to sell drugs to him.” Lees also said Charles used cocaine and discussed getting girls hooked on drugs so he could turn them into prostitutes.

Lees moved out but later returned to pick up some personal property. Charles accused Lees and Samuel Harper, a resident at the house, of burglary. Prosecutors declined to file charges against the men and, during a subsequent confrontation in April 2012, Charles fatally shot Harper in the head. Charles, who reportedly had an interest in Harper’s girlfriend which may have contributed to the shooting, was convicted of first-degree murder in July 2014. He received a life sentence without parole.

Problems at Pennsylvania Halfway Houses

The State of Pennsylvania has had its own problems with halfway houses, particularly the high rate of recidivism of those who cycle through reentry facilities. Incredibly, a 2013 study by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PDOC) found that prisoners sent to halfway houses were actually more likely to re-offend than those released directly from prison. According to the study, 67% of prisoners sent to transitional facilities were rearrested or returned to prison within three years, compared to 60% of offenders released to the streets. The study examined 38 privately-operated and 14 state-run halfway houses, and the results were similar for both categories. [See: PLN, April 2013, p.44].

PDOC Secretary John E. Wetzel stated, “The focus has been on filling up beds. It hasn’t been on producing good outcomes.”

The latter would require halfway house employees trained to assist prisoners in substance abuse treatment, job training and other programs designed to improve their transition back to society – a commitment to service that many reentry facilities apparently lack.

This failure to successfully reintegrate released offenders has had an impact on correctional costs in Pennsylvania. Expenses per halfway house resident are approximately two-thirds the cost of keeping someone in prison, but those savings are lost if a resident is re-incarcerated. Thus, the PDOC study’s findings have prompted a major change in the way Pennsylvania contracts with privately-operated halfway houses, linking their success at rehabilitating offenders, in the form of reduced recidivism rates, to increased payments. Conversely, higher recidivism rates may result in the loss of state contracts. [See: PLN, Sept. 2014, p.50].

“It’s not unreasonable for us to expect them to have an impact on crime, because that’s what we’re paying them to do,” Wetzel said.

He complained that corrections officials often showed poor judgment in assigning prisoners to halfway houses. “They could be from Philadelphia, getting out of a prison in north-central Pennsylvania, and go to a Pittsburgh halfway house,” he noted. “We are setting up [halfway house] vendors for failure. It’s really just a cheaper prison bed. We need to set up true community centers.”

Wetzel used the 2013 recidivism study to change the trajectory of halfway houses in Pennsylvania, calling the goals set forth in the report the “new normal.”

“To get a true picture of whether our state prison system is meeting its goal of reducing future crime, we need to look at more than just the re-incarceration of an individual,” he said. “We need to look at re-arrests as well to see the whole picture of how and when individuals come into contact again with the criminal justice system.... The ‘new normal’ is to expect and require quantifiable results based upon a corrections system that helps offenders to help themselves and a system that is based on research rather than anecdotal stories and innuendo.”

One Pennsylvania community that experienced serious problems with a halfway house was Hazleton, in Luzerne County. Community Education Centers was advised in June 2013 that its transitional facility contract in Hazleton would not be renewed – news that received the approval of community leaders and the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce, due to crimes linked to residents at the CEC-run facility. According to law enforcement records, offenders from the company’s halfway house released on passes, or who settled in the area after serving their sentences, had been involved in murders, bank robberies and numerous other crimes.

Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi said that when the Hazleton facility closes it will be “one step toward restoring our reputation and the perception of downtown.” Hazleton’s Police Chief, Frank DeAndrea, observed, “The community is going to be left with the scars of this facility. For quite some time, the people who have moved into and located into our area and the illegal businesses they set up will remain,” citing drug sales, theft rings, prostitution and gangs as types of activities that resulted from the halfway house’s presence. “I recognize that this facility brought a ton of ugliness and black marks to our community, but if we can use it to better or, possibly, save another community that’s what it’s all about,” he added.

Trouble in Other Jurisdictions

A number of other states and the federal Bureau of Prisons have reported various problems with halfway houses, ranging from escapes and lack of oversight to corrupt employees and sexual abuse.


In Colorado, Michael Angelo Hernandez, 28, had been arrested several times for stealing cars, break-ins, fights and DUI. Assigned to the Minnequa Community Corrections halfway house in Pueblo, he walked away from the facility in September 2013 – one of five residents who escaped that month.

The same halfway house has had problems with residents using drugs. The body of Adam Beauchamp, 27, was found at Minnequa on the morning of November 21, 2011; his cause of death was found to be acute Fentanyl toxicity. Adam’s mother conceded that her son had struggled with drug addiction and served time on a methamphetamine charge, but wondered how he obtained the drug in a supposedly secure transitional facility.

“If he was on the streets and he would have done this, okay,” she said. “But not in a facility like this. I believe something is wrong.”

Colorado’s Division of Criminal Justice ranked Minnequa Community Corrections and Crossroads Turning Points as the top two reentry facilities in the state that posed the greatest risk to the public. The Minnequa facility closed in December 2013.

Another halfway house, the Arapahoe County Treatment Center, should be added to that list. In June 2013, Francis Xavier Pizzo, 47, a former resident who had escaped, returned to the facility and opened fire with a rifle, wounding two people. Pizzo fled but was captured; he was sentenced in August 2014 to 288 years in prison.

According to the Denver Post, offenders with higher average criminal history scores are increasingly being placed in Colorado halfway houses, partly as a cost-saving measure by state officials.

The Coloradoan reported last month that 62 residents had escaped from a halfway house in Larimer County in 2014. Gary Darling, director of the county’s criminal justice services, attributed the high number of escapes to difficulties that offenders face upon their release.

“Usually, they get frustrated,” he said. “They can’t find full-time employment or they can’t find any employment.”

District of Columbia

District of Columbia halfway houses have experienced a number of problems, especially the facility known as Hope Village. The District is plagued by high unemployment among minorities and even higher unemployment among former prisoners. Joseph Willis was hopeful that Hope Village, where he stayed after his release from the DC jail, would help him succeed. However, the facility could not even assist him with basic needs.

According to the Washington Post, Willis found Hope Village’s “job-training services lacking and access to mental-health services anemic. It was difficult to get money to ride Metro to job interviews,” and the facility lacked Internet access.

“They [didn’t] let me help myself, and they [didn’t] help me at all,” Willis said. Consequently, he called the halfway house “Hopeless Village.”

His views were reflected in a 2013 report by the DC Corrections Information Council (CIC), which found that staff at the facility lacked the ability to help residents find housing and employment, and hindered them from accessing mental health services. Residents said they felt unsafe and the halfway house did not have an effective system to handle grievances. “The CIC heard on multiple occasions that incarcerated DC residents would prefer to stay at secure [Bureau of Prisons] facilities than re­enter DC through Hope Village,” the report stated.

“I would say that there are some things that are obviously dysfunctional,” said Michelle Bonner, then-chair of the CIC.


Iowa halfway houses have had trouble with escapes and residents committing new crimes. Ceneca R. Johnson had been busted three times after robbing banks at gunpoint. When arrested again in August 2012, he was supposed to be in the custody of the Iowa Department of Corrections, but had absconded from the department’s Davenport halfway house. His escape was one of 67 reported over the previous two years.

Jim Wayne, Director of Iowa’s halfway house program, said, “It’s a consistent trend. We’re going to see a number of failures in the processing of this many people ... that goes with the territory. It’s a minimum security program.”

He added, “We’re in a strange business because sometimes failure can be success. Part of what we attempt to do with services that give people more freedom – work release, or parole – is to give people an opportunity to succeed, but also identify those who won’t be able to succeed so we can get them back to prison.”

For their part, Davenport police officials said the number of escapes from the facility was barely a blip on their radar, with most escapees turning themselves in or not causing any serious problems.


When looking for halfway houses that are competently run, Dismas Charities comes to mind. Dismas, a nonprofit, operates residential reentry facilities in over a dozen states, including Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Kentucky. But even an organization with a good reputation is not without its faults.

Dismas manages halfway houses in Kentucky pursuant to an agreement with the state Department of Corrections, which allows residents to perform volunteer work at job assignments for time off their sentences. Most of the work is performed in the Louisville area for city agencies and nonprofits.

The organization was the subject of an investigation into alleged sexual trysts, drug use and thefts involving residents while on the job at Louisville Metro Animal Services and the Kentucky Humane Society. A spot-check of Dismas workers at various agencies found that several had violent criminal records which should have barred them from those positions, including jobs at the Louisville Zoo.

“We are extremely disappointed with Dismas for not following our agreed upon policy for volunteer selection and will require Dismas to tighten up its practices to ensure this will not happen again,” stated zoo director John Walczak.

Dismas programs had been well-received for decades, providing transitional services to released prisoners and low-cost labor. However, the agencies using the organization’s workers performed no background checks, and Louisville mayoral spokesman Phil Miller said Dismas’ “stated policy is that the program itself does not accept workers with a violent criminal background. So we expect them to follow that policy, and that was an important policy for us, in terms of allowing this to go forward.”

For its part, Dismas said that if the Kentucky Department of Corrections deems prisoners worthy of being sent to their halfway houses, they have no problem sending them to work for city agencies.

“If they’re qualified for ‘community custody’ and they meet all the requirements that we set down, yeah, they go,” stated Bob Yates, Dismas’ vice president of public relations.

That policy was confirmed by Todd Henson, public information director at the Kentucky Department of Corrections’ contract management division, who said Dismas was required to accept any prisoner classified as community custody. Louisville officials were apparently unaware that they could perform their own background checks and refuse to accept Dismas workers with violent criminal records.

Miller confirmed that “even though we’re concerned over [incidents involving some halfway house residents], the big picture is that it has been a remarkable incident-free and trouble-free program, as far as city government is concerned.” He added, “They’re not paid and are doing this as part of their community service commitment. And they really provide a lot of good services that in some cases we might otherwise have to pay for.”

One disturbing incident involved Dismas resident Todd Duke, who worked at the Kentucky Humane Society. In April 2012 he pushed a female employee into a room, locked the door, then tried to sexually assault her. He was arrested and charged with attempted sodomy and attempted rape; the Humane Society quickly terminated its agreement to employ Dismas workers.

Additionally, Dismas was criticized for spending over $155,000 on “luxury seats” at sports events plus $15,000 to $20,000 on a “hospitality train car” for football games, according to an April 2011 report by Kentucky’s State Auditor. The 77-page report cited problems at the organization ranging from high compensation for Dismas executives and lack of access by the Department of Corrections to Dismas’ records to poor compliance monitoring and no cost analysis performed by the state.

“Dismas Charities must ensure that the public money it receives is used in a responsible and transparent manner that serves the interests of both the recipients of its services and the taxpayers who ultimately fund the service,” said State Auditor Crit Luallen.

New Mexico

A former halfway house executive in New Mexico might have to make use of services similar to those she used to offer. Robin Cash, 56, the executive director of La Pasada Halfway House in Albuquerque, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in 2013 to a seven-count indictment charging her with four counts of theft from programs receiving federal funds and three counts of willful failure to file a tax return.

Cash was sentenced in January 2014 to 24 months in prison and three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $202,775.18 in restitution. La Pasada provides housing for federal defendants, including those awaiting trial and returning to the community after serving time in prison.


Oklahoma has turned over its entire halfway house system to private contractors. Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, said the state contracts with eight halfway houses for male prisoners, including five in Oklahoma City, two in Tulsa and one in Enid. All are operated by private companies and house from 40 to over 300 residents.

Massie said prisoners who complete their sentences at halfway houses save the state thousands of dollars due to lower supervision costs. In-prison costs average around $45 per day, while prisoners at halfway houses cost approximately $32 a day. He also noted that halfway house residents are expected to work and contribute at least part of their earnings to the expenses of the facility.

“It helps them build up a nest egg, if you will, and they have to pay back some of that to the state, which helps defer the cost to the state,” Massie said. He stated that while escapes are not uncommon, they rarely result in a threat to local communities.

“The way the system is set up, it kind of flows from higher security to lower security,” Massie observed. “As people are getting closer to being released, the hope is they behave until that time comes.”

One of the problems facing Oklahoma and other states is the reluctance of communities to welcome halfway houses into their neighborhoods. “People tend to freak out when they hear they’re going to build a halfway house, or a prison for that matter, in their area,” said Massie. “It’s normal. It’s expected.”

Based upon an October 24, 2014 article by Oklahoma Watch, such concerns are entirely justified. The public interest news organization reported that “Serious violations by inmates plagued Oklahoma’s two largest halfway houses for three years before the state took action in January by removing all inmates from one and later demanding a corrective plan at the other.”

Both facilities were operated by Avalon Correctional Services, Inc. At one of the halfway houses, employees reportedly sanctioned fights between residents for sport and as a means of imposing discipline; one of the fights was video recorded on a cell phone. Despite temporarily removing all 212 residents from the facility, the state later renewed its contract with Avalon after the company agreed to make changes.

Meanwhile, a reentry facility for female offenders in Turley, also operated by Avalon, is facing a lawsuit that alleges staff failed to report incidents of sexual abuse by work release employers and retaliated against residents who reported such incidents.


Texas has experienced problems with halfway houses that include high-profile escapes; in October 2012, for example, a rapist absconded from the Southeast Texas Transitional Center. Thomas Lee Elkins, 55, convicted of aggravated kidnapping and sexual assault, was the sixth offender to escape from Southeast in a 24-month period.

Formerly known as the Ben A. Reid Community Correctional Facility, Southeast is operated by the Florida-based GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company. Despite its appalling track record in Texas and elsewhere, GEO continues to receive state contracts. That track record includes repeated escapes, such as when Anthony Ray Ferrell fled from the Reid facility on October 25, 2010; a few weeks later he murdered a college student at a gas station. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.1].

Such incidents sparked outrage among Texas lawmakers. “I will have a hearing to discuss what can be done to prevent this, and it might include doubling down on security and expecting more of this private [company],” said state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee.

“I’ve never been happy with the current status of halfway houses in the state,” he added. “The general concept of a halfway house needs to be revisited.”

Senator Whitmire’s remarks followed the January 2013 escape of convicted sex offender John Michael Enard, 58, from the Southeast Texas Transitional Center. Enard had removed his GPS tracking device and climbed over a fence at the facility.

His escape brought to light the fact that over a 27-month period from 2011 to 2013, 719 residents were listed as absconders from the halfway house. Although most were recaptured, almost 100 remain missing. The GEO-run facility also houses civilly-committed sex offenders, three of whom have escaped, including Enard.

Texas contracts with seven reentry facilities that provide transitional housing for around 1,800 offenders – a small fraction of the 82,000 prisoners released from state prisons each year. Other privately-run halfway houses are available, but the quality of services and programs vary widely.

“It’s a problem,” acknowledged Jorge Renaud, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “There is nowhere near the amount of transitional housing that we need.”


Caitlan T. Grassi, a former case manager at the Pioneer Fellowship House, a halfway house in Seattle, Washington, was accused in 2011 of having a sexual relationship with a resident and giving him money to buy heroin. The resident, Christopher S. Webb, a notorious bank robber, later fled from the facility, saying he would fail a drug test. He then offered to present evidence against Grassi, whom he said forced him to have sex. Other employees at the halfway house also made accusations against the former case manager, with one saying she had done “whorey things.” [See: PLN, May 2012, p.38].

Grassi pleaded guilty on September 28, 2012 to concealing a person from arrest and conspiracy to possess controlled substances; she was sentenced in February 2013 to five years’ probation and 200 hours of community service.

The Feds

The federal prison system has not been exempt from criticism of its contract halfway houses. One of the Bureau of Prisons’ largest halfway house operators is the Salvation Army, which runs a 210-bed residential reentry center in Chicago, Illinois. Although walkaways are not uncommon, the presence of U.S. Marshals several blocks from the halfway house is well-known and acts as a deterrent. However, drug use, theft and violence still occur at the facility.

Where many halfway houses in the federal system fall short is in the areas of job placement and mental health treatment. While the budgets for the Chicago facility and other halfway houses always seem to accommodate large salaries for management staff, computers for residents to use to prepare résumés or search for jobs are in short supply, and mental health services are virtually non-existent.

Employees often seem more concerned about providing documentation to their superiors that offenders are adhering to BOP directives in their job search, and ensuring that residents – who frequently work at minimum wage – pay 25% of their gross pay to the facility or risk violating the terms of their supervised release.

Further, some halfway houses are situated in older, functionally obsolete buildings, as in Chicago, where the reentry facility is located in a YWCA/YMCA center built during the 1920s. In the harsh winter of 2012-2013, the facility’s boiler was non-functional for several weeks, forcing many residents to sleep in their coats as indoor temperatures dropped to almost 40 degrees.

In November 2011, the former director of a West Virginia halfway house pleaded guilty to having sex with a federal prisoner. Carrie L. Cockrell, 36, charged with sexual abuse of a ward, was sentenced on February 1, 2012 to five months in prison and five years of supervised release, including five months on home confinement. She had been the director of Bannum Place, a federally-contracted reentry facility in Clarksburg.


Sadly, it is too much to expect that all prisoners will be motivated to obey the law after their release to halfway houses, especially if they are not given the tools they need to succeed. Many of the horror stories of crimes committed by halfway house residents could have been avoided by proper pre-release screening and supervision by corrections officials, as well as better monitoring and regulation of reentry facilities.

It is clear that too many halfway houses are run more with an eye on profit than on the services and programs that prisoners need to ensure a successful transition back into society – a process that should begin when offenders first enter the prison system, not just a short time before they get out. Other than Pennsylvania’s recent efforts to tie halfway house contracts to reductions in recidivism rates, there has been little interest in ensuring that reentry facilities meet the many challenges faced by soon-to-be-released prisoners.

Politics has also played a damaging role in the halfway house industry, as contracts are sometimes influenced by political connections and lobbying rather than outcomes or performance measures. Government officials appear to be more interested in reducing expenses by placing offenders in halfway houses rather than investing in the resources necessary to ensure stable post-release housing and employment.

Too often, states have been lured by promises of cost savings by halfway house operators, but such savings have generally been accomplished by reducing staff to dangerously-low levels and skimping on important programs and services that residents need to successfully return to their communities. In fact, costs may be higher in the long term if offenders released from reentry facilities re-offend and are re-incarcerated.

On the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons needs to develop its own initiatives for improving its use of halfway houses. The federal government, with its ability to capture data not only from the BOP but also from state prison systems relative to successful reentry programs, has even less of an excuse for the current state of its contract halfway houses.

Local, state and federal corrections officials must make the same commitment of resources to transitional reentry services that they devote to locking up approximately 2.3 million prisoners each year; otherwise, without addressing the deficiencies associated with halfway houses, offenders sent to such facilities are being set up for failure and an eventual return to prison.

Meanwhile, problems with halfway houses continue to occur. In December 2014, Juancho Tango Andres, the former manager of a reentry facility in San Leandro, California, pleaded guilty to filing fraudulent federal tax returns. He recruited people to participate in the scheme at the halfway house, at drug treatment centers and among the homeless and low income communities. And on December 17, 2014, FBI and IRS agents raided two halfway houses in Delray Beach, Florida, removing evidence from administrative offices. They did not comment on the reason for the raid.


Note: The author was assigned to a federally-contracted halfway house following his release from the Bureau of Prisons in 2013. PLN writers Matt Clarke and Paresh Patel contributed to this article.


Sources:,,,,, The New York Times,, Palm Beach Post,,,,,, Houston Chronicle,,,,, Washington Post, Texas Tribune,,,,,,,, Oklahoma Watch,,, Denver Post,,,


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